I’m fascinated with gambling culture.
One reason why, I think, is that I have an estranged uncle who is a professional gambler down in Kentucky. He makes his livelihood by driving all over the south and Midwest, stopping by every game room and crumble-down casino he can find.
Over years of tight play, he figured out the patterns and algorithms that the older, analog slot machines used to simulate randomness. Since those machines don’t have true randomizers, a smart gambler can sense when the big payoff was coming and up his bets when the machine comes due. It takes hours and hours of play to come out ahead, but he never loses.
Of course, those machines are almost all gone now. And the digital machines that have replaced them are impossible to beat because their random number algorithms are nothing short of flawless.
I’m not sure what he’s going to do once all of his machines are gone. Perhaps try to break the lottery?
I’m not much of a gambler myself, at least not compared to the Magic populace at large. I enjoy poker, but I don’t play it much and I’ve never tried to learn the strategy. I’ve been to Vegas a handful of times, but I get my fill pretty quickly after a dozen games of video blackjack. As a competitive and often pessimistic person, I dwell on my losses more than I celebrate my victories. That means that odds need to be pretty good for me to want in on any action.
Of course, most things we do in life involve some amount of gambling. Even the best laid plans, right? Nothing has perfect certainty. Not a career, not a relationship, not a diet or a road trip. Most of the time, though, we’re conditioned to make the best EV play without even thinking about it.
Magic trading has a lot of inherent gambling involved with it.
Should you buy up a bunch of cards at $0.50 in the hopes they’ll hit $2? Should you sell you shocklands now, or will Wizards reprint them in the fall set? Will Modern succeed? Will Legacy die? The list goes on.
Today I’m going to focus on one specific subsection of gambling: buying collections online.
When you buy collections in person, figuring out how much to pay is easy. You get to rummage through all the boxes and binders, check condition on the best cards, and figure out how many sweet rares there are. While you might find a few surprises at the bottom of the common box, chances are you’ll be able to ballpark a figure in your head and make an offer that won’t leave you hurting.
Online collections, on the other hand, are world of temptation.
Not only is condition hard to judge from a blurry picture, often times you’re left to extrapolate the value of a collection from very limited information.
That’s when the gambling factor comes in.
If you guess right, the payoff can be huge. A friend of mine bought a collection for $20 on eBay and ended up with a playset of Sinkholes, a playset of Force of Wills, and more.
If you guess wrong, well, you’ll end up dropping $100 for a [card]Verdeloth the Ancient[/card] and two thousand of his bulk common friends. Yeah, I’m not proud of what I did that day.
One caveat: I personally no longer buy collections sight unseen. I’ve done it in the past with varying success, but I decided that the risk was too much for me. I cannot recommend it as a good way to make money, though some of you undoubtedly will.
Like I said, it’s a gamble.
I’ve had a ton of requests from people asking me about this, so I figured it would be a good topic to address. Even though the following risks aren’t ones I take myself anymore, I’ll attempt to navigate you toward the right way to approach online collection buying.
As odd as this sounds, when I writing this article I actually spent a significant amount of time trying to come up with a mathematical formula for how much money you could safely spend on an online collection given what information is available to you.
I sat there for several hours tossing numbers around, getting close a few times but ultimately deciding not to include my final equation in this article.
While I came up with a few options that included all of the data points I wanted, every time I tried them out on a new collection I ended up getting a number very different from the one I came up with holistically.
The pros talk about how, after thousands of hours of magic, they sometimes just sort of sense the need to play around a specific trick. This is a similar sort of thing. After buying hundreds of collections, at a certain point you start developing a feel for which ones have “the look” of one that goes deeper.
And to do that, you need to start buying collections.
What’s in the Light
The first thing you need to think about when buying a collection is the value of what you CAN see.
For example, bulk adds up fast. If the collection you’re buying has 500 rares, that’s $50 worth of GUARANTEED value that you’ve locked in even if every single one is [card]Vizzerdrix[/card].
You can also pretty well guarantee getting $5/thousand for the bulk commons and uncommons. While it’s true that the big retailers generally buy bulk closer to $3/thousand, I’ve never had a problem getting more than $5 for mine with no trouble at all. And that’s not counting the quarter/fifty cent/dollar uncommons that crop up more often than you’d think, especially in older bulk.
Beyond that, of course, are all the valuable cards that are listed or visible in the pictures. While closed boxes full of lurking moxes might be more tempting, often times you can make the most just by adding up the cards that you can see and making a competitive offer.
Remember to factor in ease of sale, too. A collection with a playset of every Dual Land will be absurdly easy to cash out. If you’re hoping to make your value from random copies of [card]No Mercy[/card] and [card]Akroma’s Vengeance[/card], well, that’s a much harder road.
But if you can get a full collection for enough less than you can sell the ‘known pieces’ for, it’s virtually risk free.
Trust No One
More than just the password to Fox Mulder’s computer, this mantra is important to keep in mind when dealing with unknowns online.
Anyone can say that they’re selling off a collection of Magic cards belonging to their brother who played on the Pro Tour back in 1997 and doesn’t care about his collection anymore.
You know what else is easy? Putting a Dual Land on top of a stack of Plains and then putting the whole thing up on Craigslist with a line saying, “Dunno what’s in this. $500 for stack. Will ship.”
It is important to analyze each listing from the point of view of a scammer. Is there just enough information missing to be misleading? Are there a few money cards ‘staged’ on top? Can you see a Fallen Empires symbol poking out from behind that stack of Ravnica shocklands?
The final thing you want to think about is the potential value of what lies beneath the surface.
Remember the ‘dead zone’ sets – Fallen Empires, Homelands, and Ice Age. Alliances has Force of Will, but otherwise it is hard to squeeze any value out of cards from that era.
I would also avoid collections made up predominantly of cards from Shards block and up. Mythic Rarity made even the casual players very aware of the value of their collections. Often, these collections have the good stuff right up front or the best cards have been taken out beforehand.
I’ve never gotten a collection where [card]Elspeth, Knight-Errant[/card]s have been shoved in random boxes. I’ve found dozens of [card]Wasteland[/card]s that way, though.
If you’re gonna take the risk, go big. Look for a collection that’ll have Dual Lands, Alpha/Beta stuff, or Wastelands/Forces. Otherwise, chances are it won’t be worth your time.
Let’s take on a few example collections and see if we can find any worth buying.
Case Study #1 – The Mother Lode?
Let’s start with the title. Assuming that 25k estimate is correct, this auction is worth $125 at bare minimum. So that’s our floor.
The other important piece of information in this title is that the seller chose to label them as “Magic the Gathering Deckmaster Cards.”
If you’ve played Magic for years, the word ‘Deckmaster’ is almost invisible to you. It’s on every card, yet it has even less meaning than, “the Gathering.” It’s an artifact of a game blowing up far more than anyone knew possible and being designed in such a way as to make changing the card back impossible.
If you were to sell your cards, in no way would you ever call them “Deckmaster” cards.
Now imagine you’ve never played a game of Magic in your life and you wanted to sell a card:
Yep, Deckmaster is a pretty good indication of cards being sold by someone who has no earthly idea what they are.
Let’s move on to the item description:
This is a lot of 25,000+ Magic the Gathering Deckmaster cards. I do not know much about them, they were my sons he said I can have them when he moved out. What I do know is that there is 25,000-27,000 cards they seem to be in good condition, came from a smoke free home and that my son started his collection in 1993. The rest of info you can gather from pictures.
Shipping will be $100.00 using UPS ground.
I ABSOLUTELY WILL NOT SHIP THIS AUCTION INTERNATIONALLY THEY WEIGH CLOSE TO 120LBS!
Again, everything is looking good. Deckmaster shows up again, this time in a paragraph stating that the seller has no idea what these cards actually are. 1993 is, of course, the earliest possible time his son could have been collecting, and if true that means that there is a good chance some of these cards are Alpha, Beta, or Unlimited.
Imagine 25,000 of THOSE. Yowza.
We do reach our first possible red flag here, which is that the son abandoned them after moving out.
What would drive someone to abandon such a large collection?
One possibility, of course, is that the original owner grew out of it. Maybe he felt that Magic was a childish waste of time that he wanted nothing more to do with. Maybe he didn’t know that old cards now have value. Maybe he didn’t care.
On the other hand, maybe this is just the chaff from his collection. Maybe he took everything good with him when he left, and this is just a pile of Orggs. I sure didn’t want to haul 100,000 bulk commons cross-country when I moved.
Hmmm…maybe the pictures will tell us more.
Oh. My. God.
First, the obvious. These boxes are labeled with the names of the rarest, oldest, and most valuable Magic expansions of all time. If that box labeled Alpha contains a completely random assortment of Alpha cards in good condition, it’s worth AT LEAST $20,000 dollars. Same with the Beta box. And, hell, throw in another $10,000 for the other stuff combined. The extreme upside of this auction is that this is a collection worth over $50,000.
Let’s dig deeper then, shall we?
First, there’s a very real chance that every box in this collection is filled with bulk commons from those respective sets. After all, this collector may well have had a separate place where he stored his rares and decks. The value goes way down if there’s no [card]Black Lotus[/card] or Moxen.
Of course, if you know anything about obscure cards from Revised, you’ll note that all five of the cards sitting atop the “Unlimited/Revised” box are rares. A few of the cards sitting on top of the “Legends/Arabian Nights” box are as well.
There’s rares in this lot, then. And, assuming the person who listed the auction pulled up a section of cards at random, the cards are sorted (at least roughly) by rarity. I doubt we’d go five for five on rares in that one box if they were distributed in randomly. That tells me that the collector had some idea or interest in rarity.
A few other questions need answering:
1) Of the cards in the “Legends/Arabian Nights” box, one is from Fallen Empires and two are from Ice Age. This tells me for sure that there are cards in these boxes other than what’s written on them. It also tells me that this seller might be honest. If you were going to elaborately make up an auction and fool the buyer into thinking he was going to get LE/AN cards, you’d damn well put a couple of LE/AN commons on top of that box!
2) Antiquities is spelled ‘antiques.’ Again, if I were trying to put up a scam auction, I probably wouldn’t even think to make this mistake.
That said, how many packs of Antiquities could someone reasonably buy without learning the name of the set? For this auction to be a winner, you’d have to believe it would be about six boxes worth. (That’s about how many cards are in the ‘antiques’ box.)
3) Why are THOSE specific Alpha and Beta commons on top of the box? If you believe the auction, it’s because those are the five that the seller randomly picked to highlight. Again, in a scam I’d expect to see a Lightning Bolt or something spicy to really drive interest in the lot.
Can we learn anything else about the seller?
Looks like his feedback checks out. He’s at 100% with over THREE THOUSAND sales. This is not a guy with a history of scamming.
Looking at his other sold auctions shows us that he has sold hundreds and hundreds of items going back to 2001. Nearly all of them have been slot cars (see his username) and clothes. Clearly, this guy is a small time dealer in both of those worlds.
Hmm…can a quick Google search turn up anything else?
Wow again. The first link on the engine sent me to this forums thread.
For the tl;dr crowd, the thread was started buy a guy named Jim Difalco. As far as I can tell, he runs a company that makes high end controllers for slot car racing. In this thread, he accuses our dear friend slotcarboss of counterfeiting his controllers – basically, making shoddier, cheaper models and pawning them off online as original Difalcos. Then his company gets angry calls when they break.
Which leaves us with two real options to choose from:
1) Slotcarboss might be a scammer in the slot car world, but he knows nothing of Magic. Maybe his son left him those cards, maybe he got them at a garage sale. Regardless of the truth, those boxes might be filled with absolute gems.
2) Slotcarboss is expanding his crime empire. He came across some random Magic cards, and wanted to see how much he could get for them. In what little research he did, he learned that the best sets are called ‘Alpha, Beta, Antiques, etc. and labeled the boxes as such. He then matched random cards in his collection as best he could or stopped by a card store for a few really cheap Alpha/Beta commons to complete the illusion. Remember – this guy counterfeits slot car controllers to make a few extra bucks. You don’t think he’d do this?
Given all of that, how much would you pay for this collection? The upside is immense, but the risk is huge as well.
Come up with a number in your head. Go on. I’ll wait.
Got it? Good. Was it more or less than…
Because that’s what this lot sold for.
Before I Googled the seller’s user name, I anguished over this price several times. While most of me believe that $2,800 is an insane price to pay for a couple of [card]Samite Healer[/card]s and a lottery ticket, a small piece of my soul is ill that I didn’t discover this listing until it was completed.
It would have tried to talk the rest of me into going $3,000.
What would you have done?
Case Study #2 – Out in the Open
This auction is quite different from the last one in several different ways. Most importantly, this seller clearly knows what Magic cards are.
Dual lands collection, eh? Let’s check out the description:
I am selling my collection of magic cards, i haven’t played in a long time and wish for someone else to put them to good use. Most cards are near mint to played, always played with in sleeves. There are more cards in the lot then are listed, only the bigger ones are listed and pictured.
40 Dual lands(4x of each one, all arerevised few bayous are unlimited)
40 pain lands( lands that deal 1 damage to you when tagged ie Adarkar Wastes)
40 of the 2 life pain lands ie.. Overgrown Tomb
2x Tolarian Academy
2x Gaea’s Cradle
4x Mishras Factory from Antiquities (one of each different picture)
3x Chrome Mox
1x Mana Crypt
4x Howling mine
3x Pithing needle
3x Umezawa’s jitte
1x mox diamond
4x Grim Monolith
6x Sensei’s Divining Top
7x Lotus Petal
4x Force of Will (one had a fold in the corner)
1x Time Spiral
4x Goblin Welder
4x Kiki Jiki Mirror Breaker
2x Wheel of fortune
7x Hypnotic Specter(4 are foreign)
4x Demonic Tutor(2 are foreign)
4x Cranial Extraction
4x Dark confidant
4x Birds of paradise
3x Berserk all unlimited
4x Isamaru, Hound of Konda
3x Savannah Lions
9x Wrath of Gods (4 are black bordered from portal and on is foil no text promo)
4x swords to plowshares all foreign
The first issue we need to tackle here is condition. The seller states that “most cards are near mint to played.” Uh…aren’t those the two opposite ends of the spectrum? Wouldn’t ALL cards be “near mint to played?”
The second issue is deciding how we want to estimate the Ravnica duals. The seller clearly states that the set of 40 Revised duals contains 4 of each, but that isn’t necessarily true of the shocklands. There could be 10 Sacred Foundries and no Hallowed Fountains.
In order to estimate the value of the collection, I am going to assume that the cards are all in pretty good shape and that there are 4 of each shockland.
I am going to use Black Lotus Project for my pricing, which lets me know what each of these cards sells for on eBay individually on average.
Revised Dual Lands
• [card]Underground Sea[/card] x4 – $376
• [card]Tundra[/card] x4 – $296
• [card]Tropical Island[/card] x4 – $288
• [card]Volcanic Island[/card] x4 – $216
• [card]Bayou[/card] x4 – $200
• [card]Savannah[/card] x4 – $196
• [card]Taiga[/card] x4 – $192
• [card]Scrubland[/card] x4 – $184
• [card]Badlands[/card] x4 – $156
• [card]Plateau[/card] x4 – $152
That puts us at $2,256 for the complete playset of 40 dual lands.
Normally, I would take off some money for dealing with eBay and PayPal fees, but dual lands are an exception. You will find people everywhere who will pay you $2,250 for a set of Dual Lands.
This is pretty much the easiest high-value sale in Magic right now, and you can take it to the bank.
Let’s move on, then, shall we?
• [card]Hallowed Fountain[/card] x4 – $80
• [card]Breeding Pool[/card] x4 – $68
• [card]Watery Grave[/card] x4 – $53
• [card]Steam Vents[/card] x4 – $52
• [card]Godless Shrine[/card] x4 – $48
• [card]Blood Crypt[/card] x4 – $48
• [card]Temple Garden[/card] x4 – $44
• [card]Stomping Ground[/card] x4 – $44
• [card]Overgrown Tomb[/card] x4 – $44
• [card]Sacred Foundry[/card] x4 – $34
That gives us $475 as the BLP value for a full set of the Ravnica duals.
Of course, Black Lotus Project is a lagging index, and these have actually gotten more valuable over the past two weeks as Modern speculation ramps up. Finding sets of these duals at the above price right now is close to impossible. I feel comfortable believing that I could get $500 fee-free for my set of Rav duals if I wanted to sell them today.
That puts the value of the collection at $2,750 for now.
The Rest of the Named Cards
• [card]Force of Will[/card] x3 – $155
• [card]Dark Confidant[/card] x4 – $132
• [card]Berserk[/card] (Unlimited) x3 – $117
• [card]Mishra’s Factory[/card] (All Arts) x4 – $115
• [card]Vindicate[/card] x4 – $96
• [card]Gaea’s Cradle[/card] x2 – $90
• [card]Grim Monolith[/card] x4 – $80
• [card]Sensei’s Divining Top[/card] x6 – $66
• [card]Intuition[/card] x3 – $66
• [card]Mana Crypt[/card] – $55
• [card]Tolarian Academy[/card] x2 – $50
• [card]Umezawa’s Jitte[/card] x3 – $45
• [card]Stifle[/card] x4 – $44
• [card]Demonic Tutor[/card] (FBB) x2 – $40
• [card]Chrome Mox[/card] x3 – $33
• [card]Wrath of God[/card] (Portal) x4 – $32
• [card]Force of Will[/card] x1 (Crease) – $30
• [card]Mox Diamond[/card] – $29
• [card]Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker[/card] x4 – $28
• [card]Swords to Plowshares[/card] (FBB) x4 – $28
• [card]Goblin Welder[/card] x4 – $25
• [card]Morphling[/card] x4 – $24
• [card]Wrath of God[/card] x4 – $20
• [card]Lotus Petal[/card] x7 – $18
• [card]Demonic Tutor[/card] x2 – $15
• [card]Undermine[/card] x4 – $14
• [card]Time Spiral[/card] – $14
• [card]Wheel of Fortune[/card] x2 – $13
• [card]Isamaru, Hound of Konda[/card] x4 – $12
• Pain Lands x40 – $10
• [card]Birds of Paradise[/card] x4 – $8
• [card]Wrath of God[/card] (Promo) x1 – $8
• [card]Hypnotic Specter[/card] (FBB) x4 – $8
• [card]Fork[/card] – $6
• [card]Cranial Extraction[/card] x4 – $6
• [card]Pithing Needle[/card] x3 – $6
• [card]Rancor[/card] x4 – $5
• [card]Twincast[/card] x4 – $4
• [card]Howling Mine[/card] x4 – $4
• [card]Savannah Lions[/card] x3 – $4
• [card]Hypnotic Specter[/card] x3 – $3
This stack weighs in at a healthy $1,150 according to Black Lotus Project and a few stray eBay closed auctions I tracked down myself due to incomplete data on rarities like the FBB stuff.
Of course, there are fees to consider with this stack of cards. Selling off the Forces won’t be an issue, but selling promo Wrath of Gods, Twincasts, and 7x Lotus Petal requires auctions or buylists, not just putting out a few feelers on Craigslist.
So let’s cut 17% off the top and give this stack a final value of $1,054.50.
As we stand, then, we’re at $3,804.50 for the lot, assuming reasonable condition across the board.
But wait – aren’t we getting more cards than just the ones written out? Let’s take a look at the pictures and see if there’s more profit to be made here:
The first thing that comes clear to me are the condition of the cards. The duals and Antiquities factories look quite clean, and I now feel far more confidant that they will return expected value.
The second thing worth noticing is that there are quite a few cards laid out on the table that the auction didn’t mention. Specifically:
• [card]Armageddon[/card] (Portal) x4 – $22
• [card]Serra Angel[/card] (FBB) x4 – $16
• [card]City of Brass[/card] (FBB) – $12
• [card]Regrowth[/card] (FBB) – $10
• [card]Sol Ring[/card] x2 – $10
Yeah, it’s not MUCH, but another $70 worth of value straight off the top is worth considering, no?
The fact that these cards were photographed but not mentioned (yet former gems like [card]Cranial Extraction[/card] WERE mentioned) tells me that the seller has either a weak or outdated notion of card valuations. This means that Legacy staples that went up in recent months ([card Llawan, Cephalid Empress]Llawan[/card], for example) might be stuffed into his boxes/books of bulk rares without a second thought.
The fact that we’re getting 4 [card]Dark Confidant[/card]s and all those shocklands also gives me hope that casual gems like [card]Doubling Season[/card] could be found in the rest of the collection as well.
A quick look at the seller’s feedback reveals that he sold 3x Unlimited Sinkholes and 4x Unlimited Ice Storms back in 2007, but no other Magic cards since. I believe him to be what he says he is – a former player looking to get rid of his collection.
Ultimately, we’ve learned that we can get around $3,850 for what we can see in this collection. The amount we’d have to pay?
This was a Buy-it-Now auction, and someone made the plunge at $3,500.
Unlike the previous listing, there was no chance for a home run here. The most you could have hoped for was 500-1000 bulk rares, some sweet stuff he missed ([card Cabal Therapy]Cabal Therapies[/card], [card]Standstill[/card]s, cards that have jumped in value due to EDH/Legacy metagame changes), and the ~$350 or so in profits on what we saw. Of course, the value in those ‘missed’ cards could be upwards of $500.
Also, the risks here were close to zero. Providing you had nothing better to do with yourself (hey, unemployed Magic buddies!) other than buying and selling cards, there was money to be made in this auction whether or not your gamble paid off. If you’ve got the time, it’s hard to lose on lots like this. Of course, most of the time you’ll be making just about minimum wage once you factor in listing/shipping costs and hours, but it’s better than flipping burgers, right?
There’s money out there to be made, whether or not you’re a gambler. All you need is a knowledge of cards, the patience to add up a bunch of values, and a ton of time on your hands.
And if you’ve got big pockets and a penchant for taking risks, there are wild swings out there that could lead you to pulling an Alpha [card]Black Lotus[/card] out of a box of junk. If you’re lucky.
So what’ll it be? Heads, or tails?
Until next week –
– Chas Andres